Sunday 19 November 2017

Stars to shine at Yeats homage

The words of WB Yeats will be wed to music over two thrilling nights at the NCH's Blood and the Moon event

Cabaret artist Justine Vivienne Bond
Cabaret artist Justine Vivienne Bond
WB Yeats
Paul Muldoon
Thomas Bartlett
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

This year's celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of his birth have reminded us, as if it were needed, of WB Yeats's colossal footprint on cultural history. Not just in Ireland, and not just poetry: around the world, across a myriad of art forms, his writing and philosophy have influenced, driven and inspired countless artists and art works.

Yeats' influence, direct or indirect, is immeasurable and can, for example, be seen in No Country for Old Men, Sinead O'Connor's Troy, The Smiths, The Waterboys, Philip Larkin… even unsuspected places, like sci-fi movie Equilibrium, where Sean Bean quotes from He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.

The broad, deep reach of Yeats is reflected in 'Blood & the Moon', a two-night event at the National Concert Hall. Going under the playfully intriguing sub-title 'A Provocation on Yeats', this is the latest in the NCH's Perspective series, curated by Thomas Bartlett. This musical polymath has drawn together an eclectic cast to explore, interpret and pay homage to Yeats' work - to make new art from that nonpareil canon.

Guitarist Anna Calvi, cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond, composers Nico Muhly and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, folk icon Sam Amidon, pop legend Robert Forster (he of The Go-Betweens), Cork legend Cathal Coughlan (he of Microdisney), novelist Pat McCabe and singer-songwriter Adrian Crowley will be on stage. Acclaimed visual artist Tom Kalin contributes 'Film and Imaging'. The great Paul Muldoon is literary advisor. The whole thing sounds mouth-watering.

Audiences can expect, among other things, some poems spoken with musical accompaniment, and some actually set to music. Nico Muhly is reframing Sailing to Byzantium "as a kind of art-song". There's a new piece by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly.

"But I don't want to say too much about what exactly is going to happen," Thomas explains. "I'm still figuring it out, and I don't want people to know too much going in, so they can be constantly surprised. I'm thinking quite theatrically - making an immersive performance that goes in a lot of directions.

"Working with artists like Anna or Justin, with their instinct as performers, the spell they cast is so intense.

"There's only so much planning you can do until you put them in front of an audience - then you get that thing you're looking for. There's alchemy to it."

The brains behind Blood and the Moon is a lauded composer, producer and performer, having worked with (among others) Glen Hansard, Martha Wainwright and David Byrne, and as a member of The Gloaming. Some of those involved with this show have been collaborators for years; some he's never met before. Some knew and were inspired by Yeats already, some not at all.

But for each one, Thomas says, "their music suits in some way. I wanted people who'd have different ways of matching music to words, a certain flexibility.

"I'm thinking of it less as all these different artists, and more that we're together as a sort of theatre troupe so we can make interesting decisions about how to approach the poems."

Paul Muldoon's involvement is crucial for Thomas. The two men first met through the American's Gloaming bandmate Martin Hayes, at a concert a few years ago. They now "hang out a fair amount", live close to each other in New York, and are about to begin working on a record.

Muldoon's knowledge of Yeats, Thomas says, is "extraordinary. I can suggest anything, any image, and immediately he'll know the poem to go to. He's a passionate listener of music, and he knows all the artists involved.

"I feel a lot of freedom to have an intuitive approach, because Paul's there, with his expertise, making sure I'm not messing up!

"It's a bit scary. Sometimes I'll think, 'Oh God, will I fall flat on my face?' But the energy of things being done in that intuitive, last-minute way, tends to translate into a more exciting show."

One of those we'll see on-stage is Choice Music Prize winner Adrian Crowley. The Galway songwriter was asked to contribute to Blood and the Moon by Gary Sheehan (Head of Programme Planning at the NCH).

He recalls now, "I think I said 'yes' before he'd even finished his sentence. I've loved Yeats since schooldays, and his work means many things to me. In a way, it's all around us. Growing up in Galway, I remember school trips to Coole Park, Thoor Ballylee, Ben Bulben. He was never far away, and I'm drawn to the sense of transcendence in much of it."

Adrian speaks of the "inherent musicality" in much of the poet's work. Sam Amidon, meanwhile, recalls how he grew up playing a lot of traditional Irish music, with the result that the world of Yeats and his poems was "familiar and comforting".

He once hitch-hiked down Ireland's west coast with a friend, aged 18, playing fiddle in pubs: "I have extremely fond memories of wandering through Yeats country."

Thomas Bartlett's relationship with Yeats is interesting. He studied "a little" in school, though our default National Poet obviously isn't as essential Stateside as here. But, he recalls, "My mother read me quite a bit of poetry as a kid, and Yeats was always a favourite of mine."

Like Adrian Crowley, Thomas is fascinated by how music is inherent in Yeats. He tells of Paul Muldoon demonstrating this by handing him a Collected Works and saying, "Open it at random, read the first few lines and tell me: do you hear a melody?"

Thomas did, absolutely. Yeats, he says, "has images that really stick with me."

Blood and The Moon takes place at the National Concert Hall on Sunday and Monday at 8pm. See for more details

Three not to miss

Pat McCabe

Booker-shortlisted for The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, McCabe’s shocking, bitterly funny tales of rural Gothic have twice been adapted into movies – and he’s a great public performer.

Cathal Coughlan

Corkman, songwriter, agent provocateur: Fatima Mansions and Microdisney legend Coughlan has been called a “key figure in Irish music” and “genius of rock”. No loser he.

Anna Calvi

A sublimely proficient guitarist with a deep, sultry voice, Calvi’s darkly atmospheric songs of love, lust and redemption have earned her Brit Award and Mercury nominations.

Irish Independent

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